The top UK cities for careers in the finance sector

02 May 2022 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read

London has long dominated the finance landscape of the UK, and new research reinforces its reputation as the best city to build a financial advisory career. However, Cardiff and Glasgow show that England is not the only region in which professionals might thrive as accountants.

Historically, accounting has been one of the core functions of the professional services sector – and while many of the industry’s leading firms are placing increasing importance on their lucrative consulting offerings, audit work remains the bread and butter of the market’s largest operators. Illustrating this, recent research from IBIS World suggested that in 2022, the UK’s accounting and auditing market was worth a total of $5.7 billion.

Due to its thriving revenues and important reputation, the UK audit market attracts a great many graduates each year. But where should individuals looking to build a career in this booming sector look to start work? According to a study from Virtual Cabinet, the answer is London. While this might not surprise many people, however, what they might be interested to learn is that the city is closely rivalled by several other hubs at opposite ends of the country.

The top UK cities for careers in the finance sector

London

To calculate the best city in the UK for accountants to work and live in, Virtual Cabinet researched the pivotal information people consider when deciding on taking a job. This included factors like: accountant salary; unemployment rate; cost of living; number of finance degrees; number of businesses; and ratio of finance businesses. Adding these up and weighting each factor of importance, the researchers scored each city in a ranking table.

Virtual Cabinet cited Damian Connolly, of Sakura Business Solutions, who said of the city, “As an accountant living in London for a number of years, there is no other place I would rather live in the UK. Being originally from Ireland with a bit of a ‘globetrotting’ mindset, once I qualified as an accountant, London was the first place that came to mind to start my professional accountancy career.”

London is world-renowned as a global financial hub, rivalling the likes of New York, Shanghai and Tokyo as a thriving centre of commerce and capital. It has the highest ratio of finance businesses of any city in the UK, too. As such, the city’s accounting function is crucial to its continued prosperity, and this is reflected in rate of pay across all levels of accounting and finance work. Virtual Cabinet found that average salaries of clerks, accountants and managers were highest in London. However, London is also the most expensive city to live in, with the cost of living for families and individuals greater than anywhere else, while rent prices having steadily increased, and average house prices top £700,000.

Manchester

London’s eye-watering cost of living means that many graduates might want to look elsewhere when starting their careers. In recent years, Manchester – and neighbouring Salford – has invested heavily in building a thriving technology centre, while also looking to encourage financial innovation across its districts. Now the UK’s second largest city (ahead of Birmingham by 100,000), it presents a thriving alternative to London’s financial sector.

The city pays above the UK’s average for accounting jobs, and has a relatively cheap cost of living for both families and individuals. Meanwhile, its cultural centre also provides plenty of things to do. What should be noted, though, is that for students looking to get into its financial sector, it only offers around 15 accounting degrees (compared to London’s more than 150 finance training courses), and with so few study spaces, this means individuals might need to study elsewhere before moving into the area.

Once that move materialises, however, Manchester might have marginally less competition for space in the audit sector. After all, as Connolly pointed out in contrast to the capital, “To get any of the professional opportunities that London provides, you are not only up against the best candidates that the UK has to offer, but also the best that Europe and the rest of the world has to offer as well.”

Cardiff

Those looking to get into accounting and auditing need not only consider English cities, though. In what Virtual Cabinet’s researchers referred to as a “surprise entry”, Welsh capital Cardiff ranked third in its list. Similar to Manchester, Cardiff ranked so highly in part thanks to its accountancy incomes, accounting courses, and cost of living. While its accountant and manager pay were lower down the list, its clerk income was third highest, suggesting the city is a great place to commence a career, before using that experience to win senior roles elsewhere.

Again, Cardiff offers fewer opportunities to train in accounting within the city, and there are only 12 accounting courses available in Cardiff. But it boasts around 605 financial businesses within the city – meaning there are plenty of opportunities for arriving graduates.  which is an average score out of the 25 cities we ranked for.

Southampton

While cities along the south coast are often thought of simply as commuter hubs for professionals heading to London, Southampton has a booming financial district in its own right. Regularly attracting new professional services firms, as they look to launch hubs in the south of England, Southampton has a great number of opportunities for those looking to get into accounting careers.

With that being said, the city does not rank highly at all in terms of its pay. Despite being placed fourth overall due to other factors, its clerk pay averages at 11th best in the UK, while its accountant and manager salaries sit seventh.

Glasgow

Similarly to Cardiff, Glasgow shows that there are opportunities in finance and audit beyond England’s centres of capital. Scotland’s largest city in terms of population, the hub also boasts a lower cost of living than average. If Virtual Cabinet’s research only considered salary, meanwhile, Glasgow would undoubtedly rank higher.

Clerks in the city can expect to earn the fifth highest average salary in the UK. But accountant and manager average salaries would place Glasgow in the top three.

The rest

Beyond these cities, Virtual Cabinet’s analysis considered 20 more cities across the UK. While Portsmouth, Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Reading rounded off the top 10, the researchers also singled out three under-performing cities for special analysis.

Sunderland was lambasted for its “depressingly low number of accounting courses”, while it also had one of the smallest populations and one of the highest rates of unemployment. For similar reasons, industrial town Middlesbrough was ranked as second worst for accounting jobs – but both were still surpassed by Brighton. This is because, while Brighton’s cost of living was higher than many other cities, its wage for an entry-level position into accountancy was the lowest out of all the cities. At only £20,751, it was a huge £15,000 under the UK average.